CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wisc.—This small town in the rural center of the state should be Sean Duffy's turf, and he acts like it is. Duffy, a Republican district attorney from the far north of the rambling 7th Congressional District, is facing Julie Lassa, a Democratic state senator from its southeastern end, in Tuesday's election. When he and Lassa take the stage in front of four student moderators in the Chippewa Falls High School cafeteria, she stiffly thanks them before saying she was raised on a farm and noting (as she will often over the next hour) that Duffy wants to outsource jobs to China.
Duffy doesn't swing back. Instead, he lays on the charm. "Paulie, happy birthday!" he tells one moderator. "I hear you're 18 today. You can vote on November 2. Also, I've got somewhat of a fond history with Chi-Hi. I used to play hockey, and we had a nice rivalry with you." He offers up a short bio: "I grew up doing lumberjack competitions and exhibitions. That's chopping, sawing, log-rolling, tree-climbing."
National Republicans would like these last few debates to be formalities. As far as they know, Duffy locked up this seat in May, when incumbent Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., pronounced himself "bone tired" and announced his retirement. Republicans saw Duffy as a rising star, and here was his opportunity.
So as he campaigned, he basked in national media attention based mostly on his roles in The Real Word: Boston and Road Rules. He met his future wife, Rachel Campos-Duffy, on Road Rules: All Stars, and today she's a professional pundit on all things conservative and motherhood-related. * His TV ads have played on his professional lumberjack past. In one he chops "the big spending in Washington" with an ax; in another, he runs on a log and knocks off a "professional politician." In both ads he is wearing flannel.
On Monday night it's impossible to forget that Duffy's been in the spotlight for most of his life. Lassa is 40, Duffy is 39, but the debate goes off like a scene from some 1980s college movie in which the fraternity president outsmarts the dean. She clings tightly to talking points, repeatedly saying Duffy supports "policies that send our good-paying jobs overseas." She has notes and uses them. Duffy just talks. She says again that Duffy fails to realize that Wisconsin is losing jobs because of bad trade deals and "tax breaks that ship our jobs overseas." Duffy shakes his head and makes with the folksy.
"They're packin' up and goin' elsewhere because they can't do business in Wisconsin!" he says. "If you talk to businesses, they say: 'We're not leaving because of the workers in Wisconsin. We're leaving because of policies in Madison.' And Sen. Lassa has a leading role in developing those policies that make Wisconsin one of the worst places in the country to do business."
The student questioner stumbles a bit in an attempt to ask Lassa a follow-up. Lassa doesn't seem sure how to answer it, either.
"Certainly we need to, just like the Department of Commerce has recommended"—new sentence—"is for their paper products that are coming here, a 115 percent tariff, because they are unfairly competing against us"—new sentence—"but also the policies dealing with currency manipulation."
This is a polite crowd. The only time they laugh is when Duffy makes them; he has a habit of smiling and saying "I'm done" when he finishes his answers.
Duffy's appeal isn't just personal, of course. In another year, voters could face the same choice—the Republican breezily handling questions, the Democrat clinging to the podium like a life raft—and Democrats wouldn't be worried. But in 2010, all Duffy has to do is remind voters of how bad things are. What Lassa has to do is convince a critical mass of Democrats and independents that they should direct their anger at trade agreements and the possible Republican threat to Social Security.